How Mindfulness Leads to Enlightenment

Melvin McLeod on how Buddhism uses mindfulness to develop the wisdom that frees us from suffering.

Melvin McLeod
22 May 2024
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Mindfulness is a basic capability of mind, and it is practiced for many different reasons, both spiritual and secular. Buddhism uses mindfulness in a unique and powerful way—to develop wisdom. This combination of mindfulness and insight is the basic definition of Buddhist meditation. It is the key to the path to enlightenment.

Buddhism is the wisdom religion. The problem Buddhism addresses is suffering, and its ultimate remedy is wisdom. We cause suffering in many ways, but they all have their root in our basic ignorance about what we and our world really are. Misunderstanding the nature of reality, we fixate on the illusion of a solid personal self that we fight to protect and please. Manipulating any equally illusory world, we cause pain and suffering for ourselves and others in a pointless, endless struggle .

Can it really be this simple? Practice mindfulness, develop wisdom, end all suffering?

We can mitigate this suffering in various ways—healing our trauma, monitoring our behavior, caring for others—and these help. But the only real solution is to cut suffering at its root, which is our basic ignorance about the true nature of reality. We do that using life’s most powerful tool—the mind of mindfulness.

The normal untamed mind can’t stay in one place very long. Obsessed with its projections, it flits endlessly among thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. It can’t focus long enough to develop real wisdom about anything.

The tamed mind we develop in mindfulness meditation has the power of concentration we need to understand reality deeply. It is calm and stable. It is awake and intelligent. We can place this mind where we want, for however long we need.

With the focused mind of mindfulness, we can develop the wisdom and correct understanding of reality that frees us from basic ignorance and the suffering it causes. This use of mindfulness to cultivate wisdom is the secret of Buddhist meditation.

What, then, do we discover when we look clearly and deeply at the reality of things with the mindful mind?

We see that all things, ourselves included, are impermanent, without a solid self, and involve suffering. These are called the three marks of existence, and understanding them is the foundation of the path to enlightenment. We realize there is nothing solid we need to defend and nothing solid we can hold on to—that our whole struggle for self-preservation is unnecessary. We are at peace.

In the practice of Mahayana Buddhism, we can go even further. Looking deeply at everything we experience, we see that reality is empty of every characteristic, definition, or identity we impute to it. The world of dualisms we inhabit—the relative world of this vs. that, pain vs. pleasure, existence vs. non-existence, ad infinitum—has no basis in reality at all. With this understanding of emptiness, we transcend all fear and liberate our natural compassion.

We can even focus the mind of mindfulness on the nature of mind itself. Normally we are fixated on the products of mind—perceptions, thoughts, emotions. Now we turn our attention to who or what is experiencing them.

Examining the nature of mind itself—mind looking at mind—is key to Buddhist traditions such as Zen and Dzogchen. Ask yourself: who or what is feeling these feelings? Thinking these thoughts? Perceiving these forms? Zen philosopher Dogen called this “turning the light inward” and “taking the backward step.”

If there’s anything that could be called “us,” it is this mind that is doing the experiencing. When we look at it clearly with the stable mind of mindfulness, we see that it is awake, filled with compassion, and completely open, like space. It has no characteristics, such as shape, color, center, or identity. Yet it is the source of everything we are and experience. It is, as one Tibetan chant puts it, “nothing whatever, yet everything arises from it.” To recognize and rest in this open, awake space is bliss and freedom.

Finally, in Vajrayana Buddhism we use the stable mind of mindfulness to visualize—and then directly experience—all reality as a mandala, a pure land. We see the world through the awakened eyes of a buddha. All phenomena are experienced as the play of wisdom mind—joyful, vivid, primordially pure, and sacred.

We realize that wisdom is not something we have. It is not even who we are. It’s what everything is. Like the Buddha, we see there is no inherent problem in life—reality is perfect as it is and we are complete. We no longer struggle because we don’t need to.

Can it really be this simple? Practice mindfulness, develop wisdom, end all suffering? Yes, according to Buddhism, it is that simple (although not easy). That’s because we and reality are good. Goodness is reality. Our only problem is that we don’t know it. That’s why wisdom is the answer.

Buddhism likens ignorance to clouds that obscure the sun. The clouds are lust, greed, indifference, self-absorption, and all the other painful manifestations of our basic ignorance. The sun is our true, enlightened nature, always shining even if we can’t see it through the clouds.

Buddhism’s good news is that the clouds are merely temporary. The wisdom we develop using the power of our mindfulness disperses the clouds of ignorance and suffering and lets the sun of our true nature, our natural enlightenment and goodness, shine brightly. This is the gift of mindfulness and wisdom to us—our enlightenment.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.